MOSINEE - When Mullins Cheese informed eight dairy producers displaced by Grassland Dairy that the cheese manufacturer would take their milk, some of them emotionally broke down standing in their milk house.
Mullins Cheese, the largest family-owned and operated cheese manufacturer in Wisconsin, added eight dairy producers in the Princeton, Markesan and Portage area who received notice from Grassland on April 1 that Grassland would not take their milk starting May 1.
Emotions run high for producers staring at possibly closing down a farm run by their family for generations. Mullins Cheese has been family-owned and operated for over 40 years, so family farms hold a special place at Mullins, said co-owner Bill Mullins.
Mullins Cheese buys from 700 farms in 23 counties. With two plants in central Wisconsin and a new plant built last year, Mullins said they are "running full," but the farms were located in an area where a hauler had extra room to handle the milk. The eight farms would add about an extra 100,000 pounds a day for Mullins Cheese.
"We're basically overbuying for the short term, but these farms are here for the long term," said Mullins.
Staff visited each farm, doing quality checks, before making the decision, Mullins said. All the farms were "good quality farms," family operations averaging between 80 to 300 cows.
"We are a family operation as well, so our hearts go out to these families," Mullins said.
With about 75 Wisconsin dairy producers scrambling to find a place for their milk, there are still many producers caught in the finger-pointing trade issue that could cost some farmers everything.
Tari Costello, a Waupun agriculture teacher, knows many students with connections to the Grassland letter who are caught in this nightmare. Some live on farms that received the letter, some have uncles and grandparents who have until May 1 to find a new market. Some have family members who work for the trucking company that hauls the milk. Some are children of vets that service these farms or have family that work for local implement dealers and seed salesmen. Some of the kids work on the farms impacted by the May 1 deadline.
At this point, none of the farmers have found new haulers. Producers spend their time calling plants, going to meetings and contacting elected officials in the hopes of finding a solution before May 1.
"It's a frustrating situation," Costello said. "Most are not talking about May 1. They are focusing on sharing the message and focusing on finding a buyer for their milk."
Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary Ben Brancel encouraged other dairy processors to consider how they can be part of the solution, like Mullins Cheese.
"Dozens of Wisconsin farm families still have less than two weeks to find a home for their milk before they will be forced to go out of the dairy business, losing not only their job but their livelihood," Brancel said in a statement. "I am asking, please, that dairy processors think through how they can handle this extra milk in the short-term in order to sustain the long-term success of Wisconsin’s dairy industry.”
While Brancel pleads with other processors to step forward, President Donald Trump spoke out against Canada's pricing policy on April 18. Trump vowed to stand up for dairy farmers in Wisconsin, saying the issue demands fair trade with all trading partners, including Canada.
The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) applauded Trump, pledging to continue working with the Trump Administration, Gov. Scott Walker and other elected officials to resolve the issue as soon as possible.
"Canada's repeated disregard for its dairy trade commitments to the United State has left American dairy farmers enduring the severe and unfair consequences," said NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern.
The severe consequences suffered by Wisconsin farmers can be seen in the "great deal of tears" and questions Costello fields from Future Farmers of America (FFA) students. One student who always wanted to be involved in agriculture asked her, "What do we do for future careers now?"
"That was a tough emotional question to answer because you are talking to kids who are afraid that the farms that they live on, who have been in some of their families for three or four generations, may be in jeopardy of being out of business in less than a month," Costello said. " I told them that agriculture IS and ALWAYS will be a great career option. The situation the dairy industry is facing now is the exact reason why we need our best and brightest in the agriculture industry. We will always need people who have a passion for this industry that feeds this planet."
Trump called the situation "very, very unfair" and said "it's not going to be happening for long," but for those families searching for haulers, every day is hard. Each day Costello said kids ask each other if anyone has found a plant to take their milk.
"The stress is really starting to weigh on these kids. I can see it physically in the way they walk, their personality and in their eyes," said Costello.
They try to focus on the positive, the elected officials trying to help the farmers.
"It's just tough all the way around," Costello added. "I can't imagine getting a letter saying that I have less than 30 days to find a new market just because of where I live - not because of the quality of milk that I produce or anything that I have any control over."
DATCP’s Wisconsin Farm Center continues to work with farmers and dairy processors daily. Farmers are encouraged to contact the Farm Center at 1-800-942-2474 for assistance including financial consultation, transition planning and conflict mediation.